“But having a harsh outlook on life
The caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak
And figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits”
- From “Mortal Man”
In the previous post and podcast episode, we discussed how To Pimp a Butterfly ended with Kendrick stepping into his role as prophet. In particular, Kendrick seemed to be patterning himself after the two greatest Israelite prophets: Moses, the great prophet of the Old Testament who led the Israelites out of slavery, and Jesus, the great prophet of the New Testament who claimed to have established the Kingdom of God. While comparing oneself to Moses and Jesus is a bold claim, it is important to note that Kendrick is not the first African-American to declare himself a prophet and attempt to lead his people out of slavery so that they can enter into the Kingdom of God.
“I think America think we was just playing
And it’s gonna be some more playing but
It ain’t gonna be no playing
It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying?
It’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this motherfucker
You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna happen”
- From “Mortal Man”
During the interview between Kendrick and 2Pac on “Mortal Man”, 2Pac predicted that the next wave of race riots will end in murder after black people look to the example of Nat Turner. As we discussed in the podcast for S5E2, Nat Turner was an African-American slave who led an armed revolt against white slave owners in 1831. In leading this revolt, Nat believed that he was fulfilling his divine calling, a calling seemed to be confirmed when his ability to read the Bible and preach led his fellow slaves to refer to him as “the Prophet.” Additionally, Nat also received a series of mystical visions that convinced him that the time had come to use violence to usher in the Kingdom of God where the first would become last and the last would become first.
Soon afterward, Nat gathered a group of slaves armed with hatchets. The group went through town, killing any white men, women or children in sight. However, Nat’s revolt was crushed and along with it any hope that slavery could be ended through peaceful means. Indeed, Nat Turner’s slave revolt led to a pivotal abolitionist bill being pulled from the Virginia legislature. Many historians have concluded that the failure of this bill along with the growing sense of fear around the country helped to make the Civil War inevitable. Nonetheless, Nat Turner’s legacy would live on in the hearts of generations of black men and women who would come to the conclusion that Nat was the kind of prophetic leader that was necessary to free black people from oppression in America.
“Is it wickedness?
Is it weakness?
Are we gonna live or die?”
- From “BLOOD.”
The question of whether Nat Turner is the kind of prophet that Kendrick must become seems to lie under the surface of the prophetic message that we hear at the beginning of DAMN. Through the ominous voice of Bekon, Kendrick presents us with a counterintuitive and dichotomous choice between wickedness and weakness, between life and death. As we discussed in the podcast for episode 3, these dichotomies seem to be inspired by the words of the two great Israelite prophets, Moses and Jesus.
The choice between life and death echos Moses’s warning at the end of Deuteronomy.
“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish!
Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! I also call on you to love the Lord your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the Lord promised to give to your ancestors”
- Deuteronomy 30:15–19
Here Moses makes it clear that we are meant to choose life by following God’s commandments. However, Moses’s teachings do not provide much insight into whether we should be choosing wickedness or weakness. This counterintuitive dichotomy seems to require us to look at Jesus’s teachings, particularly his iconic sermons in which he announced that he was establishing the Kingdom of God. In much the same way that Moses ended his speech from Deuteronomy, Jesus began his speech by describing who would be blessed in the Kingdom of God and who would be cursed to remain outside the Kingdom.
Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man!
Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already.
Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
- Luke 6:20–16
According to Jesus, those who will be blessed in the Kingdom of God are the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. In contrast, those who will be cursed to remain outside the Kingdom are the rich, the well-fed and the well-spoken of. This description of who is blessed and who is cursed is of course counterintuitive. It only starts to make some sense when we consider the first commandment that Jesus gave immediately after these blessings and curses.
“I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.
Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
- Luke 6:27–31,35–36
According to Jesus, those who want to live under God’s rule must forgive their enemies even when those enemies threaten the lives of God’s people — even when those enemies cause God’s people to become poor, hungry and oppressed.
Choosing a life of forgiveness means choosing a life of weakness. This is the life that Jesus called his followers to embody. This is the life that Jesus had in mind when he told one of his earliest messengers “My grace is sufficient for you because power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This power Jesus spoke of was the power to transform former enemies into members of one family. It is a power that is strong enough to cover over all the wrongs that humans due to each other.
At the same time, we should recognize that forgiveness costs something. It is a sacrifice. This is part of the reason that God told Moses to institute the ritual of animal sacrifice to remind the Israelites of the gravity of their transgressions against one another. Moses also taught that the life of an animal was in its blood. This led to the practice of sacrificing a goat and using the goat’s blood to cover the Israelite Temple every year on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — the day when life would cover over death — the day when all Israelites were restored to unity and wholeness with God and with each other.
This symbolic usage of blood that was first established by Moses would become the backdrop for how the New Testament writers understood Jesus’s act of self-sacrifice when he refused to use violence or fight against those who wrongfully accused him. In particular, during the trial where Jesus was sentenced to death, the Gospel according to Matthew reads:
Pilate, the Roman governor, said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify him!” And Pilate said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!”
- Matthew 27:24–25
In this passage, we see a contrast between the Roman judicial system as represented by the governor and God’s people as represented by the angry mob. The Roman judicial system refused to take responsibility for their actions and metaphorically washed Jesus’s blood off of their hands. In contrast, the angry mob seems to represent those of us who acknowledge our contribution to the endless cycle of violence that plagues our world.
“Thank you, Lord Jesus
For saving me with Your precious blood.”
- From “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
As Jesus’s earliest followers looked back at his crucifixion they saw that Jesus had become the ultimate sacrificial lamb. His death revealed the gravity of all of the selfish choices that we humans make on a daily basis. More importantly, though, the blood that he shed on the cross became the ultimate sign, that God himself wants to cover over the sins of humanity, reconcile enemies and unite them into one loving family.
- “The Story of the Bible” video by The Bible Project
- “Gospel of the Kingdom” video by The Bible Project
- “Sacrifice & Atonement” video by The Bible Project